The Tet Offensive

The Tet Offensive of 1968, in which the Communist forces which had been gradually built up in the previous years of the war through means of infiltration exploded in a massive and systematic assault on provincial capitols, allied firebases, airstrips, police stations and cities of South Vietnam, was the decisive turning point in the Vietnam conflict. While the enemy had massed for more than a decade, enduring the blistering tempest of intemperate American air and artillery bombardment, the Tet Offensive marked a transition from a conflict of skirmish and guerilla action to total war, including the mobilization and engagement of massed regular forces of the army of North Vietnam (NVA). While the NVA’s objectives to capture the capitols and bases of the enemy in the South ultimately proved to be unsuccessful, aside from some initial tactical victories (such as at Hue), the Tet Offensive was effective in bringing the barbarity and baseness of the conflict to the American television viewer, as the carnage reached Saigon and the proximity of Western reporters. In addition to striking a great blow at the morale of both American soldiers and citizens, causing maximum consternation and national duress, the Tet was also successful in eliminating the already weakened Saigon government support structure, both in personnel and logistics, as large numbers of Saigon loyalists were captured or executed in the chaos by VC forces and their bases of operation destroyed either by the aggressors themselves or by American relief operations. By the end of the Tet Offensive more than thirteen times as many Communists were infiltrating the South monthly than had been observed just three years before[1], by virtue of the complete failure of Operation Rolling Thunder and the consequential successes of the offensive in demolishing what little control Saigon exercised prior to the advent of the attack. While Communist movements had at least been hindered before the Tet, by extensive bombing and rural patrols, NVA forces now streamed across the border and massed against allied forces in open aggression. It was these two factors which critically undermined the American war effort and allowed for a gradually successful NVA conventional war, the demoralized ARVN forces left with diminishing US aid and support, unable to resist the spirited Communist advance.

The Tet Offensive brought the carnage of war directly to the comfort of the American living room, a people which had previously been ignorant to the immense destruction of the conflict, as it had been primarily restricted to rural provinces outside the reach of Western reporters. The offensive struck every major city and base of power in South Vietnam, and so the reporters indulged their craft in filming the battle to follow. The American people, having already tempered their waning enthusiasm[2] for the war and forsaken it as having no end in sight[3], now were confronted with a reality which contradicted the sophistry of Johnson and Westmoreland and which revealed a country on the verge of collapse, in which VC forces could infiltrate the American embassy and fire upon government workers without restriction and where summary executions of guerillas was common on the street.

While these images might have come with context, as the Tet objectives which were captured were eventually reclaimed, and the operation itself was a tactical failure as it relied on a general uprising which never came[4], it was a great political and moral victory for the Communist forces, as the American people turned their backs on the platitudes and delusions of the Johnson administration, among widespread dissent and duress. Johnson, who had previously spoke publicly of victory and a weakened enemy on the verge of defeat, was now confronted by an informed public who had observed open attacks on the US seat of power within Vietnam. The enemy, as had been purported by Johnson and Westmoreland[5][6], was not in retreat in the rural countryside somewhere, he did not “know his master,” but instead was escalating his violence against allied forces, and was attempting to capture Saigon. This realization invoked a sense of betrayal in the American public, curtailing any further movements by Johnson to increase taxes or demand additional manpower to expand the war.

The offensive also broke a running illusion which the administration and high command held, that the movements of the Communists in the rural countryside were nothing but the disconcerted actions of a war fatigued, exhausted and near-capitulatory group of bandits and petty criminals rather than the product of skillful, meticulous planning and massing, that total war by such an enemy was impossible and that technology and firepower would prevail over the capricious enemy spirit. Now confronted with the “elephant in the room,” a fully regimented regular army of NVA, screened by coordinated and highly reliable VC guerillas, besieging their positions with unrelenting force, the American servicemen were demoralized as the high command continued to ignore the reality of the situation, relying on the old tactic of fatiguing the enemy into retreat and eventual capitulation.

While this old and foolish doctrine, in concert with allied ground forces, was capable of retaking the strongholds which the Communists had captured in the early movements of the offensive, it still was futile in answering the enemy threat fundamentally, and as history has shown, was the critical failing of strategy for US forces. While the Communists had failed to capture all of South Vietnam in one swooping and grand surprise gamble, Hanoi became aware that open war against the Americans was no longer predestined to failure and that by instead utilizing a more restricted and focused spearhead, through gradual and slow advancement, final victory was possible.

Another success of the Tet Offensive was in weakening and destroying the already eroded Saigon support structure in the rural provinces of South Vietnam. While up until the Tet the VC had continually skirmished with provincial forces, infiltrated village hamlets and massed materiel for a general offensive, they were unable to capture local firebases, police headquarters, and capitols. With the Tet Offensive all of the VC were mobilized and supported by NVA regular forces, enabling the capture of these local strongholds of power. While the Communists would lose control over their objectives within a week, that crucial period of control allowed for reduction of Saigon loyalists[7][8], physical destruction of government logistical structures, extensive infiltration and recruitment and widespread spreading consternation within the populace, leading to less general government support for Saigon in the period after recapture. With the strongholds now cleaned of officials loyal to Saigon, either by execution or by capture, opposition to VC operations in the countryside was effectively reduced, allowing for increased cross-border infiltration and additional recruitment, enlarging the ranks of the Communist forces in the South. Ultimately, Saigon finally lost control of the countryside following the Tet, the conflict transforming from primarily a tug-of-war for rural control to a stopping action by allied forces in resisting continuous Communist aggression. While in the months following Tet allied forces were successful in delaying these offensive operations, they would continue to mount in the face of decreasing US support and eventual withdrawal and ultimately succeed, through slow and steady labor, in capturing the whole of South Vietnam.


[1] SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE, March 10, 1968

[2] Clark Dougan and Stephen Weiss, Nineteen Sixty-Eight (Boston Publishing Company), p. 68.

[3] Stanley Karnow, Vietnam. New York: Viking, 1983, p. 545 & 546.

[4] Ang Cheng Guan, “Decision-making Leading to the Tet Offensive,” Journal of Contemporary History 33 (July 1998): 351.

[5] William H. Hammond, The Military and the Media, 1962-1968. Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1988. Hammond, p. 326.

[6] Dougan & Weiss, pp. 22-23

[7] Dougan & Weiss, p. 35.

[8] Gunther Lewy, America in Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 274.